Conrad Black’s “sunset” lament: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!”

As I looked at the picture of Conrad Black arriving in a limo at a rented ocean side mansion in Palm Beach, Florida following his release from prison, I was immediately reminded of a line from the 1950 classic movie Sunset Blvd. when the iconic Norma Desmond reflecting on her career in silent pictures dismissed talkies  with the line “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

photo from CBC News (Hans Deryk/Reuters)

If you look closely at Black’s profile one cannot help but notice the slight smile and underlying smug arrogance of a man who undoubtedly views himself as a brave knight unjustly banished from his fiefdom by a cruel and largely uninformed legal system.

After all the only thing that Conrad did wrong was quite simply . . . be Conrad.

Think about it for a moment.  The actions that landed him in court, and ultimately in jail while different were nonetheless executed with the same condescending aplomb that in 1978 enabled him to “acquire” from the widows of Ravelston Directors Bud McDougald and Eric Phillips controlling interest in the company.

Despite the outrage that he had somehow taken advantage of these ladies in mourning, Black’s reward was Ravelston.

Let’s move ahead to 1981, where after one of his companies (Norcen Energy) failed to disclose that it’s board planned to seek majority control of Ohio-based Hanna Mining Co., the SEC charged Black with “filing misleading public statements.”  The charges were subsequently withdrawn by “consent decree” after Black and Norcen “agreed not to break securities laws in the future.”  Naughty, naughty Conrad.

In 1984, Black deemed that the pension plan surplus of Dominion Stores Ltd. was the rightful property of the company, and then proceeded – without consulting plan members mind you – to withdraw over $56 million.  Must have had big plans for the weekend?

The supreme Court of Ontario ruled against the company expressing the opinion that while the most recent language in the plan suggested that the company may in fact own the money, the “original intention was to keep the surplus in the plan to increase members’ benefits.”

The decision was then appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada which eventually upheld the lower court’s decision.

As much as possession is nine-tenths of the law, perhaps to Conrad ownership is also a state of mind with the mere morality of the masses being nothing more than an inconvenient reality.

The fact is that the charges and ultimate conviction of Conrad Black has more to do with shifting societal mores in which his overabundant avarice and feeling of entitlement offend those of us who he considers to be mere mortals.  In essence it is we who have changed and not Black, and as a result the manner in which the law was applied to punish him was more in line with our outrage than was it with true legal principles.

The court proceedings reminded me of the Bill Cosby snowball in July story.  The one where he had returned to the family freezer in July to retrieve a snowball that he had stored there in January for the sole purpose of exacting revenge on a friend when he least expected it – re a snowball to the head in the middle of summer – only to discover that his mother had thrown it out.  What is a kid to do?  In Cosby’s case, he went up to his friend and spit on him.

In Conrad’s case, the people tried to hurl at him the equivalent of a legal loogie, which was as it turns out an inappropriate application of the law.

So now Conrad is free.  No doubt feeling somewhat vindicated, and being the picture of consistency throughout the entire ordeal, he can now state in Norma Desmond-type fashion that “he is still big . . . it is the rest of us who have gotten smaller.”

With the American legal system lying face down in the proverbial pool, it would be hard to argue with him.  Of course, it has always been hard to argue anything with Black.


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